The next time that Georgie found herself alone with Mr. Anstruthers, she read him a very severe little lecture on the subject of his shortcomings.
“I knew that you liked to be satirical, and make fine, cutting speeches,” she said, with the prettiest indignation; “but I did not think you would have gone so far as to be openly rude, and to Lisbeth, of all people! Lisbeth, who is so good, and unselfish, and kind, and who is my dearest friend.”
Hector Anstruthers looked at her sweet face almost mournfully. “Is she good, and unselfish, and kind?” he said. But the question was not a satire. He only asked it in a tender wonder at the girl’s innocent faith.
“There is no one like her. No one so good, unless it is mamma herself,” exclaimed Miss Georgie, with warmth.
“But Lisbeth’s is not a common surface goodness, and I suppose that is the reason that you cannot see it. You, too, who are so far-sighted 71 and clever. I, for one, am glad I am not a genius, if to be a genius one must be blind to everything but the failings of one’s friends. Ah, Hector!” a sudden pity kindling in her gentle breast, as she met his eyes, “Ah, Hector, people often envy you, and call you fortunate, but there are times when I am sorry for you—sorry from my heart.”
“Georgie,” answered the young man, not quite able to control a tremor in his voice, “there are more times than you dream of, when I am sorry for myself.”
“Sorry for yourself?” said Georgie, softening at once. “Then you must be more unhappy than I thought. To be sorry for one’s self, one must be unhappy indeed. But why is it? Why should you be unhappy, after all? Why should you be cynical and unbelieving, Hector? The world has been very good to you, or, as I think we ought to say, God has been very good to you. What have you not got, that you can want? What is there that you lack? Not money, not health, not friends. Isn’t it a little ungrateful to insist on being wretched, when you have so much?”
“Yes,” answered Anstruthers, gloomily. “It is very ungrateful, indeed.”
“Ungrateful? I should think it was,” returned 72 Georgie, with her favorite dubious shake of the head. “Ah, poor fellow! I am afraid it is a little misfortune that you need, and I am very sorry to see it.”
It was no marvel that Georgie Esmond was popular. She was one of those charming girls who invariably have a good effect upon people. She was so good herself, so innocent, so honest, so trustful, that she actually seemed to create a sweeter atmosphere wherever she went. The worst of men, while listening to her gentle, bright speeches, felt that the world was not so bad after all, and that there was still sweetness and purity left, to render sin the more shameful by their white contrast. “A fellow wants to forget his worst side, when he is with her,” said one. “She makes a man feel that he would like to hide his shadinesses even from himself.” Her effect upon Hector Anstruthers was a curious, and rather a dangerous one. She made him ashamed of himself, too, and she filled his heart with a tender longing and regret. Had it not been for his experience with Lisbeth, he would have loved the girl passionately. As it was, his affection for her would never be more than a brotherly, though intensely admiring one. He was constantly wishing that Fate had given Georgie to him; 73 Georgie, who seemed to him the purest and loveliest of young home goddesses; Georgie, who would have made his life happy, and pure, and peaceful. If it had only been Georgie instead of Lisbeth. But it had been Lisbeth, and his altar-fires had burned out, and left to him nothing but a waste of cold, gray ashes. And yet, knowing this, he could not quite give Georgie up. The mere sight of her fresh, bright-eyed face was a help to him, and the sound of her voice a balm. He grew fonder of her every day, in his way. Her kindly, little girlish homilies touched and warmed him. As Lisbeth had made him worse, so Georgie Esmond made him better. But the danger! The danger was not for himself, it was for Georgie.
The day was slowly dawning when the girl’s innocent friendship and admiration for him would become something else. When she began to pity him, she began to tread on unsafe ground. She had lived through no miserable experience; she had felt no desolating passion; her heart was all untried, and his evident affection stirred it softly, even before she understood her own feelings. She thought her budding love was pity, and her tenderness sympathy. He had gone wrong, poor fellow, somehow, and she was sorry for him. 74
“I am sure he does not mean the hard things he sometimes says,” she said to Lisbeth. “I think that satirical way of speaking is more a bad habit than anything else. Mamma thinks so, too, but,” with a little guileless blush, “we are both so fond of him, that we cannot help being sorry that he has fallen into it.”
“It is a sort of fashion in these days,” returned Lisbeth, and she longed to add a scorching little sneer to the brief comment, but she restrained it for Georgie’s sake.
Positively such a thing had become possible. She, who had never restrained her impulses before, had gradually learned to control them for this simple girl’s sake. On the one or two occasions, early in their acquaintance, when she had let her evil spirit get the better of her, the sudden pain and wonder in Georgie’s face had stung her so quickly, that she had resolved to hide her iniquities, at least in her presence. Sometimes she had even wished that she had been softer at heart and less selfish. It was so unpleasant to see herself just as she was, when she breathed that sweet atmosphere of which I have spoken. Georgie Esmond caused her to lose patience with Lisbeth Crespigny, upon more than one occasion.
“I am a hypocrite,” she said to herself. “If 75 she knew me as I am, what would she think of me? What would Mrs. Esmond say if she knew how cavalierly her ‘dear Lisbeth’ had treated those three loving old souls at Pen’yllan? I am gaining everything on false pretenses.” And one night, as she sat combing her hair before her mirror, she added, fiercely, “I am false and selfish all through; and I believe they are teaching me to be ashamed of myself.”
The fact was, these two sweet women, this sweet mother and daughter, were teaching her to be ashamed of herself. She quite writhed under her conviction, for she felt herself convicted. Her self-love was wounded, but the day came when that perfect, obstinate self-confidence, which was her chief characteristic, was not a little shaken.
“I should like to be a better woman,” she would say, in a kind of stubborn anger. “It has actually come to this, that I would be a better woman, if I could, but I cannot. It is not in me. I was not born to be a good woman.”
The more she saw of the Esmonds, the more she learned. The household was such a pleasant one, and was so full of the grace of home and kindly affection. How proud the good 76 old colonel was of his pretty daughter. How he enjoyed her triumphs, and approved of the taste of her many admirers. How delighted he was to escort her to evening parties, or to the grandest of balls, and to spend the night in watching her dance, and smile, and hold her gay little court, entirely ignoring the fact that his gout was apt to be troublesome, when he wore tight boots instead of his huge slippers. It was quite enough for him that his girl was enjoying herself, and that people were admiring her grace, and freshness, and bloom. How fond the half-dozen small brothers and sisters were of Georgie! and what a comfort and pleasure the girl was to her mother! It was an education to Lisbeth Crespigny to see them all together. It even seemed that in time she fell somewhat into Georgie’s own way of caring for other people. How could she help caring for the kind hearts that beat so warmly toward her. Then, through acquiring, as it were, a habit of graciousness, she remembered things she had almost forgotten. If she was not born to be a good woman, why not try and smooth the fact over a little, was her cynical fancy. Why not give the three good spinsters at Pen’yllan the benefit of her new experience? It would be so little trouble to gladden their 77 hearts. So, with an impatient pity for herself and them, she took upon herself the task of writing to them oftener, and at greater length; and frequently. Before her letters were completed, she found herself touched somewhat, and even prompted to be a trifle more affectionate than had been her wont. A poor little effort to have made, but the dear, simple souls at Pen’yllan greeted the change with tenderest joy, and Aunt Millicent, and Aunt Clarissa, and Aunt Hetty, each shed tears of ecstasy in secret—in secret, because, to have shed them openly, would have been to admit to one another that they had each felt their dear Lisbeth’s former letters to be cold, or at least not absolutely all that could be desired.
“So like dear, dear Philip’s own child,” said Miss Clarissa, who was generally the family voice. “You know how often I have remarked, sister Henrietta, that our dear Lisbeth was like brother Philip in every respect, even though at times she is, perhaps, a little more—a little more reserved, as it were. Her nature, I am sure, is most affectionate.”
That fortunate and much-caressed young man, Mr. Hector Anstruthers, not only met Miss Crespigny frequently, but heard much of her. Imperfect as she may appear to us, who 78 sit in judgment upon her, the name of her admirers was Legion. Her intimacy with the Esmonds led her into very gay and distinguished society, far more illustrious society than Mrs. Despard’s patronage had been able to afford her. And having this, her little peculiarities did the rest. Her immense, dusky eyes; her small, pale, piquant face; her self-possession; her wit, and her numerous capabilities, attracted people wondrously. Even battered old beaux, who had outlived two or three generations of beauties, and who were fastidious accordingly, found an indescribable charm in this caustic, clever young person who was really not a beauty at all, if measured according to the usual standard. She was too small, too pale, too odd; but then where could one find such great, changeable, dark eyes, such artistic taste, such masses of fine hair, such a voice?
“And, apart from that,” it was said of her, 79“there is something else. Hear her talk, by Jove! See how she can manage a man, when she chooses to take the trouble; see how little she cares for the fine speeches that would influence other women. See her dance, hear her sing, and you will begin to understand her. A fellow can never tire of her, for she is everything she has the whim to be, and she is everything equally well.”
“So she is, Heaven knows,” Hector Anstruthers muttered, bitterly, looking across the room at her, as she stood talking to Colonel Esmond. Old Denbigh’s laudatory speech fell upon his ears with a significance of its own. She could be anything she chose so long as her whim lasted; and there was the end of it. It all meant nothing. She was as false when she played her pretty part for the benefit of the Esmonds, young and old, as when she encouraged these dandies, and ensnared them. With Georgie she took up the rôle of ingénue, that was all. She was bad through and through. He felt all this sincerely, this night, when he heard the men praising her, and he was savage accordingly.